Michael Bowden, Alex Burnett, Shawn Camp, Rafael Dolis, Kyuji Fujikawa, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier, Kameron Loe, Carlos Marmol, Blake Parker, Zach Putnam, Brooks Raley, Henry Rodriguez, Hector Rondon, James Russell, Eduardo Sanchez, Pedro Strop, Hisanori Takahashi, and Carlos Villanueva.
That is the list of everybody who’s appeared in a game for the Cubs out of the bullpen thus far. And that pen has been much maligned. For a lot of reasons. The 24 blown saves advance that perception, even though many of those “saves” were blown in the 7th and 8th innings, and not the 9th. In all actuality, the 9th inning hasn’t gone all that bad for the Cubs. When the Cubs get to the 9th inning with a lead, they are 45-4. For comparison sake, they are 1-58 when they enter the 9th trailing. And overall, the bullpen has been much better of late. Since the additions of Strop, Guerrier, and Parker, the pen has been solid, and it has not regressed since Guerrier was lost. With Russell, Parker, and Strop, the Cubs finally have a bridge to Kevin Gregg in the 9th, who has gotten the job done in spite of how interesting it may be.
Looking forward, the Cubs figure to have James Russell, Blake Parker, Pedro Strop, and Carlos Villanueva back in the bullpen next season. Villanueva may be in the rotation for periods, but it seems like he is best suited to be in the pen, and fill in as a spot starter. That leaves three openings for next season’s bullpen. Matt Guerrier may be invited back after rehabbing from forearm surgery. The Cubs also have some players who can fit nicely into relief roles in the system already. Brian Schlitter has been dominant at AAA Iowa this season, racking up 17 saves without blowing one. And Arodys Vizcaino should be back from his elbow issues the last couple of years. The plan is, tentatively, to send him to play in fall and/ or winter leagues, to get him back on the mound, which would serve him well in rehabbing this off-season. And he may end up as a starter at some point, but a cautious approach with him, and letting him get innings in a bullpen role would be a way to bring him back at the major league level without running up 150-175 innings in his first year back. Filling the last slot with Hector Rondon, who has a good arm and a year of experience could make the Cubs pen much better, assuming everyone stays healthy and pitches similarly to how they are now.
Projected 2014 Opening Day Bullpen (assuming no outside moves are made):
While this exercise is highly speculative, the point is simple: the Cubs have the arms to improve the bullpen within the organization. And every one of the players in my projection has been in the major leagues, including Schlitter, who appeared in seven games all the way back in 2010. They have some depth, too. If the Cubs can figure out what is wrong with Henry Rodriguez and get him to throw strikes, he’s a viable option. Matt Guerrier has already expressed interest in returning on a minor league deal, and at this point, there is no harm in that. Eduardo Sanchez was a once promising reliever with the Cardinals, and is young enough to recapture his form. Kyuji Fujikawa will return at some point next season from Tommy John Surgery. And most importantly, maybe, Carlos Marmol, who couldn’t finish games at the end of his Cubs’ career, and Shawn Camp, who got beat up a lot this season will not be returning.
The pen is already better right now than it was for most of the summer. And there is talent in the organization to improve it further next season. With any offense at all, the Cubs might actually flirt with a winning season, which would be a positive step in the rebuilding effort.
On July 29th, the Cubs returned home for the first time since the All-Star Break, seven games under .500, and without Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, who’d both been dealt on the west coast road trip. Things looked good. They’d won the trip against the Rockies, DBacks, and Giants, in spite of moving Garza and Soriano. But some warning signs were there…
First, they weren’t scoring all that much in San Francisco. They scored six runs in the series. It’s not like they were lighting the world on fire. They were just less futile than the Giants that particular weekend. And the Giants hadn’t been playing all that well, anyway. The Cubs were playing an equal, in spite of what that banner from last October might have said. The Giants simply aren’t all that good this season.
Coming home, they got a series with the lowly Brewers. Who are in the division. Which, this season, automatically means inexplicably losing at least two of the games. Lo and behold, they drop three of the four, all of which were in typical 2013 Cubs fashion. Pedro Strop gave up the only five runs he’s allowed as a Cub in the first game. They dropped both games of a doubleheader, blowing leads on a James Russell home run allowed in the first game and a Kevin Gregg blown save in the second, with a third strike call that wasn’t and a soft line out to short that wasn’t helping them blow the lead in the ninth inning.
After the Brewers, they got the Dodgers for four. As of today, the Dodgers have won 40 out of their last 48. In case you weren’t sure, an .833 winning percentage is freakin good. They’ve been killing everybody lately. It would have been a surprise if the Cubs won more than once in the series, and it doesn’t come as any surprise that they didn’t win at all. The Dodgers are a buzz saw right now, and the Cubs were a thin sheet of plywood at that point. Sure, they could have scored some runs in the last two, but it’s not earth shattering news that they didn’t…they haven’t been scoring all that much all season long.
The road is a little more kind to the Cubs. Splitting six games with the Phillies and Cardinals is a good result. In spite of their record, the Phillies still have some talent on their roster, and the Cardinals have been toward the top of the standings in all of baseball since Opening Day. Winning half of your road games is a good thing, so no complaints there.
Getting the Reds, and Mat Latos when you get back home isn’t the house warming gift a struggling offense wants or needs. And Latos was nasty on Monday night. So they got shut out again by another good pitcher. They got to Homer Bailey a little bit, which was nice to see, but Bronson Arroyo, who’s pretty solid, and loves to stick it to the Cubs for whatever reason, shut them down again.
I give you that nice summary of the painful last two and a half weeks to tell you this…all of those (with the exception of the Brewers) are pretty decent teams. The Cubs just aren’t. Not after trading away another 40% of the rotation and the clean-up hitter.
“What I want to avoid is the middle ground. It’d be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick. We’re not hiding that. There’s no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?
We’re going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season. If we have a legitimate chance to push for a playoff spot then 2013 can become our primary focus. If we think a playoff spot’s not in the cards, there will be no concern for appearances or cosmetics whatsoever. We’ll continue to address our future and trade off some pieces that would keep us respectable.’
And presto…the team who didn’t have a chance for the playoffs this season made their cold assessment, looked to the future, moved some parts that could keep it respectable, and it’s gotten ugly against some better than average competition. And we’re bitching about not scoring any runs? WE WERE TOLD THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN SIX MONTHS AGO! If you thought the Cubs had a chance to win the division or compete for a playoff spot, you were one of three things: on the team and have to believe you’re not going to suck just to keep your own sanity, a big time optimist, or delusional. I had the Cubs, as they arrived at camp, hanging around .500. (I also had the Pirates finishing dead last in the division, so take it for what you will) I made that prediction early because nobody for sure can never tell who’s going to stay or go, or get hurt. And, the team that broke camp, actually played well enough to be near .500 every month except for April (10-16) and thus far in August.
The moral of the story here is simple…It is ridiculous to be on board with the rebuild and bemoan that the team isn’t all that good during the middle of it. It’s even more ridiculous to be critical of how ugly it is when we were told explicitly by the guy who was going to decide on who to move and when to move them that it was probably going to happen. None of this is a surprise. If it is, you haven’t been paying attention.
I now return you to waiting for Javier Baez to hit another home run in AA.
All of the deadline talk, and justifiably so, has been centered around Matt Garza to this point. There are also some other players who have been talked about as candidates to move on as the deadline approaches. David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Alfonso Soriano, and Kevin Gregg have all been spoken of as players who could very likely be traded as the deadline nears, or at least wouldn’t cause anybody any surprise if they were moved. There is also a list of attractive players that the Cubs could move who are not talked about prominently as the deadline inches closer. They fit the needs and holes of teams in contention and are low cost options to upgrade a roster, and it would make perfect sense if the Cubs were fielding calls about these players…
2B Darwin Barney:
The Cubs are stacked in the middle infield in the minor leagues at just about every level. With Logan Watkins at AAA Iowa, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez at AA Tennessee, and even Gioskar Amaya at Low-A Kane County, middle infielders are of no shortage in the Cubs’ organization. Darwin Barney has done everything he can to become a member of the core group of players that the Cubs use to make their eventual run, but his limitations with the bat seem to make him less attractive than other options. With a Gold Glove in his pocket and over a year before he even gets to arbitration, he could make a team looking for a low cost second baseman, without a need for a highly productive bat, very happy. The need doesn’t even have to be strictly second base. Barney came up as a short stop, and played third base when he first came up to the majors. He could be quite the defensive addition for any team looking to shore up its infield defense. Darwin actually fits into a line-up like Detroit’s perfectly. Incumbent Ramon Santiago plays both offensively and defensively at about replacement level. Replacing him with Darwin Barney doesn’t hurt their prolific offense at all, and very much shores up their middle infield. With the rumor that Detroit was interested last year, it makes sense that they would be interested again this year, given how close they came to winning a championship last year. Darwin Barney won’t net any team’s top prospect, but he should net a solid prospect or retread a la Scott Feldman. And with the depth already mentioned in the system, Darwin is expendable.
IF Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom:
Luis Valbuena is another player who could see himself on the move as the deadline approaches. Because he is an everyday player with the Cubs, he has displayed what he can do with the bat from the left side of the plate, and has shown to be more than capable as a defender. A team looking for a left handed hitting platoon infielder would love to have a player like Luis Valbuena for his ability to work counts, take walks, hit for power and field three infield positions well. A team like the Yankees, who have had a hard time keeping players on the field may take a long look at a Luis Valbuena. He would fit into the gaping holes left by repeated injuries and days off because of the advanced age of regular players, and his bat would play well with the short porch and right field power allies at Yankee Stadium. The Rays could also have interest in a player with his skill set. He wouldn’t net much of a return, but if there is a low level player in a system that catches Jed or Theo’s eye, don’t doubt for a second that the original “low risk waiver flyer” could be flipped for a lottery ticket at the deadline. Cody Ransom is in pretty much the same situation as Valbuena, except he’s right handed, comes with less control, and more age.
P Carlos Villanueva:
Maybe the least surprising player on this list, and quite possibly the most likely to be traded, Villanueva is a player who has been talked about as a trade candidate. He was merely overshadowed by the talk of Garza and Feldman, among the pitchers. Villanueva is particularly valuable because of his versatility as both a starter and reliever. While specific locations for him may be tough to pin point, it is reasonable to say that any team looking for a ‘pen arm with the ability to give you a solid swing start from time to time would be interested…which boils down to pretty much everybody. Again, it would be a surprise if Villanueva netted anything of note, but a middling prospect in somebody’s system who hasn’t progressed or a retread could be an expected return.
It was tough for to watch. I worked all day, saw none of the game, and got back just in time to turn on the game during the middle of the ninth. Perfect timing for a classic “Marmol Meltdown.”
The conversation turned heated. There were tweets of death threats to Marmol, threats of violence towards him. Which is inexcusable and despicable in every sense of the word. There is no reason for that kind of nonsense. Even if it’s Game 7 of the World Series. If that was you, you should be ashamed. And have a serious reevaluation of your life’s priorities.
As far as Dale Sveum is concerned, he didn’t have many other options. Kevin Gregg was not available after pitching four straight days. Carlos Villanueva was a trendy “WHY THE HELL COULDN’T HE PITCH?!” option. His ninth inning numbers are horrible, though. He has a career 5.23 ERA in the ninth, and in save situations, he has an 0-7 record, with a 4.32 ERA and six saves. None coming since 2010. That doesn’t do much to inspire me to run him out there if I’m Dale. Shawn Camp was just activated off of the DL, and has not pitched in majors since May 21. We all remember that night pretty clearly *Cough Grand Slam Cough* Henry Rodriguez’s reputation is for wildness. Blake Parker has pitched well in a closer’s role in Iowa, but not in the majors. James Russell had pitched the 8th. And that’s everyone out there.
It is awful to lose a game like that one. The Cubs have lost worse, though. They’ll lose worse in the future. That’s the nature of sports. Every thrilling comeback is paired with a heart-breaking defeat. I can’t blame Dale Sveum for going to Marmol, though. While I am not sure I buy the Cubs trying to build trade value because at this point, I think it is obvious what he is, I am buying that the Cubs were trying to help themselves by running Marmol out and trying to get him a save. Kevin Gregg can’t pitch every day. They need someone else to be able to close games. Marmol is the most logical choice. He had been pitching much better.
Carlos Marmol is not the closer of the future. He isn’t even the closer of the future of this season. Kevin Gregg is the closer, for now. He could be traded to someone looking for a closer. At that point, Marmol is again in the running to be the closer, by mere default. Sure, James Russell could be given a shot. But Marmol’s history gives him a chance, no matter what. And he deserves a crack at it.
There is no guarentee that yesterday is the last blown save for Marmol this season. He may be thrust into that role yet again. And we should be prepared for the worst. But no matter the result of future games, it is the right thing for this season to keep using Marmol in high leverage situations. There is nothing to lose but some meaningless games.
A lot of pressure is put on a manager to effectively use his pitchers. Knowing when to pull a starter, knowing which reliever to go to, knowing how long a reliever can go, knowing when to give a reliever a day off, knowing when a reliever has had too many days off and needs to get some work…all of it matters when it comes to managing a pitching staff. For Dale Sveum, it’s amazing he knows who is sitting down there sometimes. For comparison sake, here is the difference between the bullpen when the season started and today:
Cubs 2013 Opening Day Bullpen:
- Carlos Marmol, Kyuji Fujikawa, James Russell, Shawn Camp, Hisanori Takahashi, Michael Bowden, Hector Rondon
Cubs Bullpen, May 29
- Kevin Gregg, Carlos Marmol, James Russell, Carlos Villanueva, Rafael Dolis, Hector Rondon, Alex Burnett
Every bullpen goes through changes through the course of the season. That’s not news. The amount of turnover in the Cubs’ pen, though, has been crazy. Shawn Camp is on the disabled list, Michael Bowden is still in DFA limbo after last week when Matt Garza came off the disabled list, Hisanori Takahashi was outrighted to Iowa, and Kyuji Fujikawa needs Tommy John surgery. Alex Burnett was claimed off of waivers and made his debut in a scoreless ninth today. Kevin Gregg was signed as organizational depth, or so we thought. He’s the freakin’ closer. KEVIN GREGG IS CLOSING AND BEING SET UP BY CARLOS MARMOL! It’s like 2009 all over again, and that’s not exactly what any of us wanted. In the mean time, Dolis has been up and down, and Kameron Loe was in town, got smacked around for a few weeks, and was released.
Some of the turnover is because of injuries. They happen disproportionately to pitchers, and we all knew a spot was going to be lost in the pen when Garza returned, but the ineffectiveness of the bullpen is another factor in the turnover. Blaming Dale for the ineffectiveness is unfair, too. He went to players who were reliable for him last season and they have failed him, time and time again. Both Carlos Marmol and Shawn Camp were supposed to be anchors at the back of the bullpen, and both have been removed from their roles. Camp only because of an injury he concealed for the better part of a month, according to Sveum. One of the more reliable relievers was Michael Bowden, who after being designated for assignment last Tuesday, must have action taken on him by Friday. He either needs to be waived, released, or traded. At this point, I can’t see why the Cubs wouldn’t try to sneak him through waivers and bring him right back. It won’t be difficult to find a 40 man slot for him, with Kyuji Fujikawa sacrificing his to the 60 day disabled list.
The numbers are gruesome. 10/20 in save conversions. Although, not all of those were in the 9th inning. Actually, a number of those were blown in the seventh and eighth innings, which underscores the importance of the ‘set up guy.” The Cubs have allowed 32% of inherited runners to score, which is just above the league average of 30%, according to baseball-reference.com. None of this information is a secret. It really only assigns numbers to what we’ve watched for the first two months of the season.
There is some hope, though. Carlos Villanueva has been good this season, and being a veteran reliever has been a strength of his. Kevin Gregg has been a stabilizing force since becoming the closer. James Russell continues to be the best reliever the Cubs have had since Sean Marshall went to Cincy. Carlos Marmol seems to be figuring it out and pitching much better when he doesn’t have the weight of closing the game on his shoulders. Like last season, the pen seems to be getting stronger now that there is a defined, effective guy at the end. Everything between the starter and closer then falls into place. If the starters keep pitching like they have been, and the pen extends its brief resurgence, a run of really good baseball isn’t out of the question.
I think we’re all sure that there is going to be a sell off at the deadline this season again. The extent of that sell off is yet to be determined, but in comparison to last year, it will likely be pretty minor. The reason for that is simple…there is less there for the Cubs to sell. That’s not to say this team is less talented than last year’s team. Actually, the opposite is true by a wide margin. Looking at “the plan,” though, and what the Cubs have on their roster, who is likely to go is pretty limited.
NOT GOING ANYWHERE:
Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood
The only player in this group who has any chance of being dealt is Travis Wood. Jeff Samardzija is a stud who is under team control through 2016. That type of pitcher is someone you don’t let go of if you’re lacking impact pitching talent in the first place. Travis Wood has an outside shot of being traded because of his hot start to the season, with nine quality starts in his first ten outings. He, too, is under team control for a long time. He won’t hit free agency until 2017. He is exactly the type of young, cost controlled asset the regime has said to want to keep around. Dealing him at the deadline would be a huge shock to me, and I don’t see it happening without some type of high end prospect coming back in return. And because Travis Wood is still only a good 4-5th starter, I can’t see a team willing to cough up that much for him. Edwin Jackson’s not going anywhere. He was signed to be a piece for when the Cubs compete. And he will get ample opportunity to figure out what troubles him.
MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:
He’s only been back for a week, so I think it is entirely too early to tell whether or not he is fully back from his arm/ lat injuries. And it is too early to tell what kind of value he has. I know that the Cubs are looking to get back impact prospects for Garza, and if they get the right package of them, he’ll be packing his bags and headed to another city. It is just too early to tell if any team is going to be willing to ship the Cubs the right package of prospects for a pure rental player, who is due to become a free agent at season’s end. It would figure to be just as likely that Garza stays in Chicago all season and the Cubs slap a qualifying offer on him. If that happens, it would be entirely possible that Garza would return to the Cubs after watching Kyle Lohse wait until just before the season to be signed. There is an outside shot that the Cubs extend him for a contract similar to the one they offered Anibal Sanchez. He is worth that kind of money when healthy, and if he shows that he is, he’d be worth the investment.
DON’T GET COMFORTABLE:
Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva
Both of these guys are attractive pieces at the deadline. Neither makes all that much money. Both can come out of the pen. Both can give you a good start every five days. That makes them the two best candidates to be out the door this July. Feldman was asked about being flipped at his introductory conference call, so none of this should come as news to him. Villanueva, however, signed a two year deal, so he would likely net a bit more than
Feldman in a trade, simply for the extra year of inexpensive control.
NOT GOING ANYWHERE:
Hector Rondon, Shawn Camp, Kyuji Fujikawa, Carlos Marmol
I know you’re all upset that Marmol is on this list. I am, too. He’s not worth a day old hotdog, though. At the deadline he’ll be due about $5M, and his numbers aren’t going to make that a good investment for a team looking for a quality reliever. The only way he comes off this list is if he has a turn around like last year and the Cubs eat most (…or all) of his remaining contract. And he won’t bring back very much in return. The most likely scenario with him is finishing the season and walking away in free agency. Shawn Camp is much more likely to be released than traded. Kyuji Fujikawa has been injured too early to have any chance at being dealt, and Hector Rondon is a Rule 5 player who the front office likes. That makes all of them mostly untradeable.
MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:
James Russell, Kevin Gregg
James Russell has proven to be a valuable commodity in the bullpen the last couple of years, which increases his value immensely, but since he is under team control through 2016, it stands to reason that the team would like to keep a controllable asset like him. There are good teams looking for left handed relievers who can get guys out on both sides of the plate, though. And if one of them offers up a good package for James Russell, it would not be outside of the realm of possibility that he gets shipped off for multiple pieces. Kevin Gregg is having a bit of a resurgence with the Cubs, which makes him attractive. He’s a cheap piece who could fit into a bullpen and occasionally close for a team looking for that type of player. He probably wouldn’t net a whole lot, but considering the Cubs were just throwing a line in the water to see what he had, any return would be a nice profit on their low risk investment.
NOT GOING ANYWHERE:
Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Wellington Castillo
Rizzo and Castro both signed long term extensions. Those are obvious. Castillo is a talented young catcher who is going to get every opportunity to win this spot long term.
MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:
Darwin Barney, Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom, Dioner Navarro
The most attractive piece in this group is obviously Darwin Barney. His glove makes him an attractive trade piece for someone looking for a really good utility infielder. Remember, he came up as a short stop and played some third base when he was initially called up. If his bat keeps coming along, he could be a really good long term starter at second base for a contending team with a shortage in that spot. He’s 27, so the Cubs may not see him as a long term piece of the core group of players. He is under team control until 2017, though. And if he continues to make progress with the bat, he is every bit the kind of player you want at 2B on a contending Cubs team. Luis Valbuena and Cody Ransom both offer the same kind of value for a team that Jeff Baker added last year. They are both utility players who can swing the bat some. They may not bring a lot in return, but that probably wouldn’t stop the front office from sending them away for some intriguing young players.
MAY BE GOING SOMEWHERE:
Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Scott Hairston, Ryan Sweeney
The safest bet for any of the outfielders to go anywhere is David DeJesus. A veteran, left handed hitter who can take pitches and work counts while offering solid defense at all three outfield positions is always in demand. If the price is right, DDJ is out the door. It’s just not clear what his value is. It can’t be too much higher than it was last year, and he wasn’t traded then. I sense that he would have been traded last year if there was a market for him, which gives me some reason to think he’s not the slam dunk to be traded that some are calling him. Soriano is going to be shopped aggressively, and if the Cubs find a team willing to package some good pieces together and Soriano is willing to waive his no trade rights, he likely goes at the deadline. There is too much uncertainty with Soriano, though. He’s picky. And he has that right. If the Cubs get a call about the other three players, I am sure they will listen, and if they can get a prospect of two that they like, there is almost no chance they refuse.
None of this is to say that the Cubs will stand pat at the deadline. It just isn’t clear who will or will not be going anywhere. There are not the sure things this season, like Ryan Dempster last season. There are attractive pieces on this team for others to look at, but none of them are necessarily special. Matt Garza would net the most in return, theoretically, but if Jed and Theo don’t get a package they like, it is hard to believe they will trade him for the sake of trading him. That actually applies to pretty much everybody on the roster short of Feldman. He is a true rental, even for the Cubs, so if they can squeeze a prospect out for him, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to do so. They may be a little more choosey with Villanueva only because they have him next season, too, and if they plan on being in the hunt next year, he’s a nice piece to have. Or, if we’re looking at another cold assessment that leads to selling, he has value then, too.
Expect some movement from the Cubs. Just don’t expect them to send away everything not nailed down like last year. This is year two. It’s time to start hanging on to some of the talent.